Forces of Libya’s transitional government swept into Sirte on Saturday in one of the biggest assaults yet on Moammar Gaddafi’s home town but had to seek cover when they drew fire from his die-hard loyalists.

Fighters with the Transitional National Council shouted “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is greatest!”) as a force of about 100 pickup trucks mounted with heavy weapons pushed into a residential district on the southern side of Sirte.

They were forced to scramble for refuge under heavy fire from pro-Gaddafi fighters holed up in an apartment complex, according to a reporter on the scene. Two council fighters were killed and three wounded in the exchanges.

“There is a very vicious battle now in Sirte,” Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of the council, told reporters in the capital, Tripoli, where he met with defense ministers from Britain and Italy. “Today our fighters are dealing with the snipers that are taking positions and hiding in the city of Sirte.”

Taking Sirte would bring Libya’s new rulers closer to their goal of establishing control of the entire country almost two months after they seized Tripoli, but their offensive is hampered by pressure to spare civilians trapped inside.

The revolutionary forces have driven Gaddafi’s supporters back from defensive positions well outside Sirte and now are contesting control of the center of the coastal city in street-by-street battles.

A prolonged struggle to capture the remaining bastions of pro-
Gaddafi loyalists has sidetracked the council’s efforts to set up effective government over the sprawling North African country and rebuild oil production vital to its economy.

Along with the interior desert towns of Bani Walid and Sabha, Sirte is one of the last redoubts of Gaddafi loyalists in the country he ruled for 42 years.

— Reuters